The role of boundary objects

There is some wonderful research taking place around young children and museums/galleries, the findings of which we can use to inform our teaching practice.

What enables young children to better engage with exhibitions, and sustain interest back at the childcare centre?

How can we help tamariki to make meaning from what they see and hear at the museum?

A piece I have found particularly helpful in addressing these questions is Young children developing meaning-making practices in a museum: the role of boundary objects (2012) by Margaret Carr, Jeanette Clarkin-Phillips, Alison Beer, Rebecca Thomas and Maiangi Waitai. This is an output from a wider project entitled Our place: Being curious at Te Papa.

Boundary objects are “things or representations of things (photographs for instance) that physically [cross] the boundary between the museum exhibition and the kindergarten…[including] the documented assessments that [tell] boundary-crossing stories” (pg. 57). They were found to enhance the learning potential of the museum by assisting children to make connections, and by providing opportunities for discussion and play back at the centre.

Implications for practice

Although there are various kinds of objects that could be used, four objects are identified as being particularly useful:

  • Photographs for display, provocation and reference
  • Sketch books for collecting detail and recording findings and experiences
  • Teacher-made booklets to “add to children’s knowledge and expertise and to provoke reflection” (pg. 60)
  • Learning stories for capturing and communicating children’s boundary-crossing actions and exchanges

Moreover, the authors emphasise that it is the conversation that surrounds the objects that has the most value. Six effective teacher strategies for sustaining dialogue are offered:

  • Supplying information where it appears to be relevant
  • Asking children for clarification
  • Focusing observations
  • Introducing a problem
  • Asking for children’s opinions when you genuinely don’t know the answer
  • Showing your own curiosity and interest

Have you used boundary objects in museums? What objects can you suggest? Let us know in the comments

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